Pursuit of Autonomy: An Assessment of Japan’s Latent Counterspace Capabilities

Published date01 April 2023
Date01 April 2023
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Pursuit of Autonomy:
An Assessment of Japan’s
Latent Counterspace
Anupama Vijayakumar1 and Vineeth Krishnan1
Pacifism has been the cornerstone of Japan’s identity in the post-1945 era. In the
light of its changing threat perception in the post-Cold War period, Japan has
been increasingly pursuing autonomy in the security domain while stretching the
limits of its pacifist identity. It has hence sought to build a strong technological base
to support its latent military capabilities. This article attempts to contextualise
Japan’s pursuit of autonomy in outer space amid growing security competition
in the domain. It discusses the legal and organisational changes that have allowed
for a growing involvement of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in operating space
assets. The potential counterspace applications of major technological capabilities
shown by Japan in the civilian and commercial space sectors are assessed. The
article surmises that Japan, which has a global reputation as a benign space power,
can continue to refine its latent counterspace capabilities amidst a pursuit of
autonomy, without straying much from its pacifist traditions.
Space security, space weaponisation, Japan, space militarisation, counterspace
Outer space is today one of the most contested domains among the great powers
(Director of National Intelligence, 2011; United Nations, 2013; US Space Force,
2020, p. 17). Space-enabled services have become vital to a country’s economic
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
10(1) 24–46, 2023
© The Author(s) 2023
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970231152013
1 Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal,
Karnataka, India
Corresponding author:
Anupama Vijayakumar, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of
Higher Education, Manipal, Karnataka 576104, India.
E-mails: Anupama.v2@learner.manipal.edu; anupamavijayakumar10@gmail.com
Research Article
Vijayakumar and Krishnan 25
activities, prompting states to lay a strong policy emphasis on outer space. Space
assets also enable a wide range of activities to be carried out by proficient militaries,
including gathering intelligence, carrying out surveillance and reconnaissance,
assisting in precision targeting of missiles and munitions, providing early warning
of incoming missile attacks, maintaining secure communications with forward-
deployed military units and so on. However, the outer space arena has also received
exponentially greater interest in the twenty-first century due to the development of
an array of counterspace capabilities that can disrupt or destroy space assets.
The centrality of the space domain for achieving victory in modern wars has
become an increasingly accepted notion. Major spacefaring nations including the
United States, China, Russia and France have showcased an array of offensive
and defensive technologies in outer space (Weeden & Samson, 2021). The past
decade and a half witnessed the demonstration of anti-satellite (ASAT) capability
by four nation-states, China in 2007, the United States in 2008 (testing for the first
time since the height of the Cold War period), India in 2019 and finally, Russia’s
first such road-mobile system, in 2021. An ASAT is perhaps the most ‘spectacular’
of all counterspace systems, producing an unambiguous, explosive outcome––
a clear demonstration of capabilities to all concerned. Such incidents have rightly
caused concern among the global community, with a major worry being the
amount of space debris left behind in their wake.
Meanwhile, the testing and development of various other types of counterspace
systems, each with a degree of ambiguity far greater than that of an ASAT system,
continue unabashed. Such counterspace systems range from those that produce
temporary or reversible effects (such as intercepting communication signals from
satellites by blinding or jamming them) to those that could cause far greater,
irreversible damage (such as co-orbital weapon platforms). Alongside developing
such capabilities, nations such as the United States, China, Russia, France, India
and Germany have also been engaged in reorganising their militaries, setting up
branches dedicated to space operations (Machi, 2021; Petroni et al., 2021). The
stated goals of such new or repurposed units range from that of securing space
assets––an easy sell to domestic and international audiences––to tougher asks,
such as using space assets to support military operations across the world.
Japan, too, has brought in a military focus to outer space within its strategic
calculus in recent years (Kallender & Hughes, 2019). The country has shown an
intention to bring about its own ‘resurgence’ and emerge as an influential player
in international affairs (Abe, 2013). The exact place and priority that outer space
holds within Japan’s strategic calculus deserves an in-depth examination in the
current context. Japan’s space program is widely perceived as a benign one.
Still, it has emerged as a major space power over the past two decades (Vijayakumar,
2020). It has showcased its technological capability, most prominently through
deep space exploration missions and international collaborations. The emerging
security environment in outer space, though, could force Japan’s hand in deve-
loping counterspace capabilities that help mount the best ‘self-defence’ of its
space assets as possible.
This article attempts to contextualise Japan’s increasing quest for autonomy in
international relations amid the emerging discourse on outer space as a domain of

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